We could be poets - just for one day

Verse or worse: Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll invade the sober world of modern literature

Louise Jury
Sunday 07 July 1996 23:02

The gaggles of excited schoolgirls were an early indication that this was no ordinary poetry festival.

Roger McGough, Adrian Mitchell and James Fenton, Oxford University's poetry professor, may have their following, but their fans rarely swoon.

Pop fans, of course, do. So when Michael Horovitz, the poet, persuaded Damon Albarn, the singer-lyricist of the Britpop band Blur to appear in yesterday's Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, London, the fans came too.

Horovitz was as pleased as punch at the extra interest in his nine-hour extravaganza of words and music, starring more than 40 performers. He thought the inclusion of Albarn, alongside Ray Davies from the Kinks, and singers Patti Smith and Nick Cave, was exactly what the event should be about.

"Poetry has always overlapped with music and dance and drama," he said. "It's only silly narrow-mindedness when people want to categorise anything, pushing people into pigeon holes. The thing about a good poem is it is strong communication which is just what a good song is."

Stung by recent newspaper literary criticism of some of his unfinished lyrics, Damon Albarn was making no claims of literary merit for his own works. "I write words that rhyme occasionally. I don't write poetry," he said. "I think poetry is more ordered. I like the energy of words but I'm not really interested in being that ordered."

Yet he was delighted to have been asked to take part. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't ecstatic about doing it," he said. Horovitz turned up in person on his doorstep to ask him. He proved so charming that Albarn's girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, the singer-guitarist with Elastica, agreed to take part too as a compere.

"I think it's a great concept," she said yesterday. "It's nice to be involved in something that isn't just music."

The other writers were taking their glamorous pop rivals in their stride. Roger McGough, a Liverpudlian "Mersey beat" poet, said there was room for everybody. "If it brings young people in who wouldn't come if they thought it was severe poetry, that's great."

Not that poetry needed pop to draw the crowds, he added. "Poetry always has been popular. I've been doing big readings and making money out of it for years. It's just there's more attention being paid to it now."

Carol Ann Duffy said she was always amazed to discover that some people were very distant from poetry. "I'm very much in favour of something like this. Something that uses a bit of showbiz and a bit of humour is necessary still."

Sharon Swanepoel and Cathy Elam, both 21, from South Africa, would probably have come regardless, but Nick Cave was definitely the draw. "I think we'd have been here, but in cheaper seats," Ms Elam said.

Even traditionalist poetry lovers did not seem to mind the pop incomers. Margaret Welman, who described herself as an "extremely mature student" said: "I think it's a brilliant idea."

Thirty-one years ago, Michael Horovitz was one of 17 poets from nine countries who filled the Albert Hall to overflowing with an event grandiosely called "The First International Poetry Incarnation". In those days, he said, poetry was a "tight game reserve of people with PhDs. He hoped he has done something since to break down the barriers. "I just wanted to show the diversity of talent," he said.

Black Hair - Nick Cave

Last night my kisses were banked in black hair

And in my bed, my lover, her hair was midnight black

And her mystery dwelled within her black hair

And her black hair framed a happy heart-shaped face

And heavy-hooded eyes inside her black hair

Shined at me from the depths of her hair of deepest black

While my fingers pushed and curled into her straight black hair

Pulling her black hair back from her happy heart-shaped face

To kiss her milk-white throat, a dark curtain of black hair

Smothered me, my lover with her beautiful black hair

The smell of it is heavy. It is charged with life

On my fingers the smell of her deep black hair

Full of all my whispered words, her black hair

And wet with tears and goodbyes, her hair of deepest black

All my tears cried against her milk-white throat

Hidden behind the curtain of her beautiful black hair

As deep as ink and black, black as the deepest sea

The smell of her black hair upon my pillow

Where her head and all its black hair did rest

Today she took a train to the West, to the West

girls and boys - Damon Albarn

#street is like a jungle

so call the police

following the herd

down to greece

on holiday

love in the 90s

is paranoid

on sunny beaches

take your chances looking for

girls who are boys

who like boys to be girls

who do boys like they're girls

who do girls like they're boys

always should be someone

you really love

Excerpt from the Pow! anthology published by New Departures, organ of the Poetry Olympics, PO Box 9819, London W11 2GQ at pounds 6.99/pounds 7.99 including post and packaging

Burning Roses - Patti Smith

Father I am burning roses

father only God shall know

what the secret heart discloses

the ancient dances with the doe

Father I have sorely wounded

father I should wound no more

I have waltzed among the thorn

where roses burn upon the floor

Daughter may you turn in laughter

a candle dreams a candle draws

the heart that burns

shall burn thereafter

may you turn as roses fall

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